Summer vacations rarely do anybody’s intellect much good, least of all mine. And yet, I have rekindled my interest in the ranking and rating of presidents, a longtime fascination of mine. This post is not so much my own ranking (although that will be coming up), but how rankings have been done in the past, shifts in methodology, and why particular presidents rise and fall in the rankings over time.
The grandaddy of presidential rankings is, of course, Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., a celebrated historian whose son would go on to be a kind-of “court academic” in the Kennedy administration. In 1948, Schlesinger asked 55 experts to place all U.S. presidents (except W.H. Harrison and Garfield— more on that in a moment) up to that point into one of five categories: Great, Near-Great, Average, Below Average, and Failure. He repeated the process in 1962, with 75 experts taking part, including most of the original 55. Most rankers were historians, with a few political scientists and journalists thrown in. The results were published in Life magazine and read with great interest. Schlesinger’s rankings established a kind of modus operandi for presidential rankings: in many cases, the convention of Lincoln, Washington, and FDR occupying the top three, though not always in that order, continue apace, as does Warren Harding’s designation as a failure. Only deliberately contrarian assessments of the presidency challenge these claims. However, the rankings did not request that the scholars explain their work or offer their rationales- as a result, one is left wondering “why” Millard Fillmore is below average, or what made John Adams marginally more successful than his son. (You can see the results of both Schlesinger polls, along with a few others, here.)
A number of recent questionnaires have tried to compensate for this problem by using a formal rubric. C-Span’s 2009 rankings, for example, included 10 areas in which presidents were assessed, with the results coming from their composite score. These areas included “Crisis Leadership” and “International Relations” to the somewhat more abstract “Pursued Equal Justice for All” and “Performance within the Context of Their Time.” Charles and Richard Faber’s recent second edition of The American Presidents Ranked by Performance takes things even further. The two brothers work together to determine rankings along fully 50 different sets of criteria- 5 categories with 10 apiece, down to minutiae such as “Consulting the Public” and “Being a good neighbor to Latin America.”
But one perennial charge within this system of ranking presidents is that of bias. Schlesinger’s group, though a veritable brain trust, was nonetheless infested with groupthink: nearly everyone was a white, liberal, east-coast man who taught history at an excellent university, and even within this subset, Harvard is dreadfully over-represented. Historians of Schlesinger’s age were inclined to think of conservatism as a form of paranoia and anti-intellectualism (think Richard Hofstadter’s work), and there was little attempt to broaden who was included- ideological, geographical, racial, gender, or occupational. It also does not help that most of these scholars were part of the “Eggheads for Stevenson” organization- one reason why Adlai’s opponent, Dwight Eisenhower, was ranked “low average” in the 1962 poll, despite serving two terms, handling Korea excellently, and presiding over a more or less prosperous decade. Other groups have used this charge against “conventional rankings” and created their own, even more ludicrously biased, rankings. In 2005, I had a book sent to me in London, called Presidential Leadership:Rating the Best and Worst in the White House. I was a pretty naive undergraduate then, and it didn’t occur to me that a book that had been published by the Wall Street Journal and the Federalist Society would be less than objective. The organizations accomplished their ends by striving for- wait for it- balance. (“Ideological balance” is usually the way crackpot theories get a foot into the door of respectable debate.) As such, WSJ and the Federalist Society intentionally went for an “ideologically balanced” group of scholars- seeing who had liberal, moderate, and conservative inclinations and picking roughly equal numbers from each group. This responded to the homogeneity problem of Schlesinger’s ratings with an outright travesty. It is, of course, dishonest by most social science standards to choose your sample pool in an unrepresentative way to get particular results. It also balanced the customary use of historians with political scientists and, for some reason, lawyers. It was absurd on many grounds, not the least of which is that most historians (and, now that I think about it, most political scientists and even most lawyers) are left of center– going for “ideological balance” creates a distorted view of the state of these disciplines. But strangely, the results (you may click here to see them) were not particularly different from most other rankings, except Reagan was a little bit higher and Carter was a little bit lower.
Along these lines, different groups or individuals have sought to rank the presidents along explicit ideological assumptions. One of the the most famous of these is Ivan Eland’s Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty, an assessment of the presidency along libertarian values. While establishing very strict guidelines of success, Eland is strikingly fair in his assessments- giving libertarian bogeyman Jimmy Carter credit for his peace overtures, and criticizing small-government hero Ronald Reagan for ballooning the deficit and overusing the military. We even had a group of British historians ranking the presidents for the first time this year, using a foreign perspective on these leaders. These rankings embrace and explicate, rather than obfuscate, their preferences and their analysis of what makes a presidency successful. You either agree with their assumptions or you don’t. In many cases, presidential rankings will tell you more about the experts than about the presidents.
For all these differences, very few presidents have shifted very far in the ratings and rankings over the years. As I said earlier, Washington, Lincoln, and FDR often occupy the Olympian heights. Harding, Buchanan, and Pierce will usually anchor the bottom. But a few presidents belie this trend and have seen their reputations shift. Andrew Johnson has gone from a respectable “average” to a bottom-feeder– partly because Reconstruction, seen as a dismal, corrupt failure by most mid-century historians, has been reappraised by first-rate historians like Eric Foner, who saw it as a revolution in human rights that was not allowed to reach its fulfillment. As such, A-J’s attempt to curtail radical reform and racial justice in the South look less like principled strict constructionism and more like ignorant east Tennessee hillbilly racism. As younger historians take up the reigns, Eisenhower is getting a fair shake from people who didn’t campaign for his opponent; he had “graduated” from low-average and is frequently in the top ten. Grant has also improved; his relative good will toward black Americans, as demonstrated in recent scholarship, has improved his standing, and compensated for the financial scandals and his poor judge of character that made him a failure in Schlesinger’s first two polls.Yet, for all the rankings through the years, all but the most specialized ones have surprisingly few dramatic differences.
Despite the great variety of methods at hand, there are a few outstanding problems with these rankings that I would correct. First of all, I am not convinced of the value of aggregating rankings of many scholars- it creates a consensus, but a meaningless and an unhelpful consensus. An individual ranking allows room for explanations and particular insights to inform the results in a way that averaging lots of rankings, even well-informed ones, cannot. To put this more simply, a quantitative ranking like Schlesinger’s deals with unhelpful averages– one scholar might rank, say, James Madison as a “near-great” for steady, constitutional leadership, but another might rank him as “below average” on the perfectly reasonable grounds that if the British set fire to the White House, then you are, ipso facto, an unsuccessful president. My model in suggesting this might surprise you: ESPN’s Bill Simmon’s attempt to single-handedly rank the 96 best NBA players of all time in his acclaimed The Book of Basketball. (To his everlasting credit, he puts my favorite player, Chris Mullin, on the list at a perfectly respectable #82.) Simmons used his own ranking system, employing statistics and awards, but subordinating them to context and good judgment. (For example, he didn’t rank a scoring champion like George Gervin very highly because, for all of his 25+ ppg seasons, his teams never made it past the semifinals.) Instead, his system revolved around a sparklingly brilliant thesis, a player’s grasp of what Simmons calls “the Secret”– the player’s ability to subordinate individual accolades and put playoff success- as a team- first. Is there a “Secret” to presidential leadership that we can use to better understand who succeeded, who failed, and who was middling?
A second recurring problem is an emphasis on two-term presidents. In my judgment, this penalizes presidents who tried to work for the long-term national interest, but had to make painful and unpopular short-term decisions to get there. In other words, it discourages courage. I’m a big fan of the “throw yourself at the grenade” presidency. Adams the elder, Bush the elder, Hayes, and to a lesser extent Tyler, Fillmore, and Carter all damaged their political fortunes for noble purposes- Adams avoided a potentially disastrous war with France, Bush raised taxes when necessary despite a campaign promise to the contrary. Adams and Fillmore even unwittingly destroyed their own parties, the Federalist and the Whigs respectively, to secure what they believed to be their country’s long-term stability. Robert Merry’s recent book, Where They Stand, evaluates presidents largely on how the contemporary public viewed the man, believing that a president’s contemporaries should be taken into account, and not just the judgment of posterity. Accordingly, presidents who won two terms are almost always considered successful, and presidents who were succeeded by someone in their own party (think Reagan being succeeded by Bush 41, or Theodore Roosevelt being succeeded by Taft) are praised as especially effective leaders. As is common for a frequent contributor to National Review, Merry is wrong, wrong, wrong. The public can be deceived by demagogues, vote for short-term benefits at the expense of the long-term national interest, and make astounding bad choices for president. Under no circumstances should a president’s popularity be confused with his effectiveness.
A third is the confusion between a president’s accomplishments outside of the presidency and their performance in office. The presidents with roots in the Revolutionary War, of course, are the most susceptible to this . It seems churlish to write off Jefferson and Madison, especially, as less-than-capable presidents, because they are, respectively, the author of the Declaration of Independence and the chief architect of the constitution. Similarly, John Quincy Adam’s post-presidency crusade against slavery, immortalized several years ago in Amistad, looks so good to us in the 20th century that we rank a competent but politically maladroit man like JQA somewhere in the low teens.
A fourth is simply who gets ranked. In his initial questionnaires, Schlesinger omitted William Henry Harrison (famous for having served only 30 days as president) and James Garfield (who was only president for 6 months, and was recovering from a gunshot wound for much of that time.) What about Zachary Taylor– he served barely a year and a half– can he be ranked fairly? What about incumbents– is it fair to rank Obama before his term is up? Is it fair to rank George W. Bush, or for that matter Clinton, when the long-term impact of their presidencies is still playing out? Or is this a slippery slope? One might argue that the ramifications of every president’s choices are still at work in the world.
Are you confused yet? Well, don’t worry. I’ve got a system up my sleeve, and I am itching to share it with my faithful readers. Stay tuned, my friars of this little Northumbrian monastery.